How Cities Are Changing as The Population Ages
With cities becoming ever more desirable residential hubs, there’s no shortage of opportunities for accessible, connected living. But for every Toronto that’s geared to woo millennials, how are urban centers accommodating the older set: urban boomers?
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
Population aging is slated to be one of the biggest social transformations of the 21st century. The overall U.S. population is skewing older as a big chunk of the population (Baby Boomers) are aging and live longer, and the vast majority of older adults do not want to leave their homes or communities as they age.
Right now, one in three Americans is 50 or older. By 2030, one out of every five people will be 65+; by 2050, older adults will have outnumbered all children under the age of 14…for the first time in human history. Meanwhile, they’ll be clustered together in ever more concentrated areas. By 2030, about three out of every five people in the world will live in cities.
With this data in mind, how can disparate cities unite on clear goals to support this growing, aging, urban-based population—and the physical and social challenges associated with aging—so such citizens can continue to contribute to their communities, plus maintain their health, independence, and joie de vivre?
ENVISIONING LIVABLE COMMUNITIES
One key player is the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. An affiliate of the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program (an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and the parallel trend of urbanization), AARP’s program has participating communities in more than 20 countries. In the U.S. alone, more than three dozen communities representing more than a dozen states (and counting) are enrolled.
The goals of both connected initiatives are to help participating communities cultivate essential features like:
• Comfortable, structurally sound, centrally-located, and barrier-free housing (think elevators, railings, access ramps, non-slip floors, wider doorways, and non-steep stairways, adequate signage, handicap-accessible restrooms, and doors that aren’t too heavy), including smaller living spaces in more compact, dense communities
• Green, public spaces with community gardens, seating (to offer a place to rest, as well as sanctuary from weather, dogs, or occasionally reckless skateboarders or rollerbladers), lighting, security, and sanitary facilities
• Safe, walk-able and bike-able streets with appropriately sized, placed, and maintained crosswalks, sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic lights, as well as low-speed roundabouts (vs. intersections, where 40% of all car crashes involving drivers over the age of 65 occur) and streets
• Accessible, reliable, frequent, nearby, well-lit, well-maintained, and affordable transportation options, particularly public transit (for those who are no longer driving, or are otherwise car-free or car-lite) to continue to work, visit family, socialize, stay involved in faith, experience culture, visit doctors, or volunteer
• Access to free or affordable health, social, communication technology, and financial services (including specialized resources for those with dementia)
• Tech-literacy workshops
• Group exercise classes
• Chances to exchange knowledge and interests between generations to foster respect and wisdom
• Opportunities for cultural and community activities (to combat the social isolation that can occur for aging citizens), which can be attended solo and feature efforts to minimize economic, linguistic, cultural, and physical health barriers, to maintain diversity and social inclusivity
Simply put, a livable community is one where people of all ages can go for a walk, cross the streets, ride a bike, get around without a car, live safely and comfortably, work or volunteer, enjoy public places, socialize, spend time outdoors, be entertained, go shopping, buy healthy food, find the services they need, and make their city, town, or neighborhood a lifelong home.
These factors promote health (in part by reducing the speed of decline or disability through psychological, social, and medical support), accessibility, intergenerational bonds, and economic growth; reduce stress (both for the aging citizens and the family members who love them); as well as make for happier, healthier residents—of all ages.
TURNING INPUT INTO ACTION
Facilitating such changes is of course a process—and a unique one for each city, at that—but common approaches help to streamline the undertaking. First, AARP considers targeted criteria. Then, equally essential is the input of people living in these communities, who must be served in ways important to them, on a local and personal level.
Based on surveys with older residents, here’s a look at what several Age-Friendly Communities and their residents have already envisioned to transform their cities:
• Increase the number of parks and public spaces that have functional seating, drinking fountains, and restrooms
• Develop and widely distribute a user-friendly inventory of housing choices that welcome residents age 50+ who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, have disabilities, or who are English language learners
• Coordinate with nongovernment partners to organize creative evening events, sports outings, and competitions for older residents
• Work with the business community to adopt age-friendly business best practices and provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for older customers
• Create a "Home Health Worker Registry" that lists the names of workers who have been terminated for reasons pertaining to elder abuse and/or fraud
• Foster the use and availability of alternative transportation options that are community oriented, such as car sharing
• Develop opportunities that allow people to garden in their homes, apartments (such as balcony gardens), and neighborhoods (such as community gardening plots)
• Require that building addresses and signage be present and legible to those with limited vision (for example, larger font size, non-glare surfaces)
• Ensure equitable distribution of accessible social spaces throughout the city
• Actively encourage older adults to participate in civic affairs and advocacy, including those historically underrepresented and unheard
Des Moines, Iowa
• Increase walkability in neighborhoods for all ages
• Create, promote, and celebrate new partnerships with private and public sector enterprises that demonstrate their commitment to age-friendly goals through communications, customer service, and service delivery
• Establish an “Age-Friendly Business” certification program
• Promote “Senior College” opportunities and other programs that will
strengthen senior alliances with colleges and universities
• Identify and promote greater in-home care options
• Create and promote programs that reduce rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illness
• Increase mobility/physical activity options for residents
• Integrate needs of 50+ populations into city/county emergency planning
Auburn Hills, Michigan
• Create and distribute an age-friendly housing guide that will encourage real estate developers to use universal design features when creating new housing units
• Improve the city’s bike paths, trails, and overall walkability by, among other efforts, installing emergency phones, adding benches and emergency lighting, and developing a routine maintenance program
• Educate residents about community health services through marketing programs and better promotion of local health fairs and health screenings
• Establish a "Time Bank" through which participants can exchange services instead of having to pay for them
• Establish a "neighbors check on neighbors" program
• Increase the marketing of local events and making the city’s website more accessible (by design enhancements such as using a larger font)
• Partner with stores to provide deliveries for homebound residents
• Review locations for either building or reconstructing an existing vacant building for use as a new senior center that is accessible by public transportation and includes programming of interest to all segments of the community
• Conduct a transit/sidewalk study to determine pedestrian use and the need for sidewalk placement, as well as crosswalks and signals
• Collaborate with developers of new construction and renovation projects to encourage the use of universal design that will improve accessibility for seniors
• Help age-50+ people write and publish their life stories to enlighten others
As the population inevitably ages and cities continue to grow, such ideas—and implemented initiatives—will become all the more widespread and critical, all over the globe. (Want to find out how suitable your neighborhood is for age-friendly living now or in the future? Give the AARP Public Policy Institute’s Livability Index tool a spin.)
How cities adapt and transform to citizens’ needs—of all ages—is an intriguing, evolving process. Let us know what ideas you have (and what changes you have seen) in the comments below.